Author: James O'Brien

Phil Kessel; Peter Horachek

Kessel: Leafs ‘can’t go through stretches like this’

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The San Jose Sharks handed the Toronto Maple Leafs their third straight loss and fifth consecutive road defeat on Thursday night. It wasn’t pretty as San Jose generated a 3-1 edge and fired 42 shots on goal to Toronto’s 25.

Honestly, the Maple Leafs’ recent numbers are ugly any way you slice it.

  • They have just three wins since Dec. 18 (3-11-0).
  • Toronto has lost six of seven since 2015 rolled around.
  • The Buds have only won once in four games under interim head coach Peter Horachek.
  • Their offense has really gone dry, scoring a single goal in a three-game road trip through California (the tab in those three losses: nine goals for opponents, one for Toronto).

Is it luck?

There was some positive buzz surrounding the Maple Leafs when Horachek first took over. From a big picture standpoint, some of that may stand, at least for those who cringed at Randy Carlyle’s system.

Losing games tends to sour such optimism, however, as Phil Kessel noted to TSN.

“In this league you can’t go through stretches like this,” Kessel said. “Obviously it’s disappointing here. I think we’re playing decent hockey, but we’re just not winning any games.”

It’s bad enough that Kessel is throwing around terms like “slay the dragon.”

Pattern continues

The team is generally saying all the right things, yet as much as they talk about gripping sticks too tightly and needing more bounces, Toronto may just lack the makeup to get things done.

In the last three games, they’ve generated 25, 28 and 19 shots on goal. It’s no secret that they allow more pucks on their net than they, averaging 29 shots on goal per night while giving up 33.5.

To little surprise, this slump is being met with harsh criticism in the media … criticism that’s increasingly difficult to dismiss:

Are the Maple Leafs suffering from bad luck or are they just plain bad? That may be a matter of debate, but the bottom line is that Toronto is quickly fading from the East playoff bubble picture.

With six of their next eight games on the road, this rough stretch may very well continue, too.

Berube, Hextall may differ on best response to hit on Flyers’ Laughton

Craig Berube
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During an eventual 1-0 win for the Washington Capitals, Matt Niskanen clobbered young Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Laughton with this big hit, which looks to sideline him for at least tonight’s game:

The Flyers’ response won’t make Laughton return to action any sooner, yet the difference in opinions between GM Ron Hextall and head coach Craig Berube may have made more waves than the check itself.

Here’s how CSNPhilly.com describes the disagreement:

Interestingly, Flyers coach Craig Berube wasn’t sure if the hit was dirty and didn’t think it necessary for the team to retaliate while general manager Ron Hextall was vocal in saying the hit needed to be dealt [with] from the Flyers and while attempts were made toward that end, nothing was carried out on the ice.

Here are the two quotes in question, via NJ Advance Media:

First, Hextall’s take:

“You gotta hit him back,” Hextall said. “Hit him or (star center Nicklas) Backstrom (who fell over Laughton after the hit) … That’s how you respond these days.”

Next, Berube:

“Niskanen’s not going to drop his gloves and fight anybody, so you can’t just go and grab a guy and start punching,” Berube said. “You’re going to get a five-minute major. I don’t think it’s a very smart move personally. Yeah, if the game’s 5-0 at the time or something like that. It’s a 1-0 game. We’re trying to win the hockey game. You’ve got to be smart.”

Perhaps the two really disagree on the matter, but maybe it could boil down to semantics? After all, Berube also said that players know to “respond to it” and be physical about it, although one could make a reasonable argument that he’s more emphatic about avoiding a foolish penalty than Hextall might be. Maybe.

(Really, for all the patience Hextall has shown compared to recent Flyers general managers, you didn’t think that the once-volatile goalie would promote turning the other cheek, did you?)

If it’s truly a matter of profound and problematic disagreement, they’ll likely hash it out behind closed doors. One would assume it’s not a huge issue, really.

That said, plenty of people will be watching a little bit more closely the next time a Flyers player receives a big hit.

Report: Rangers closing in on six-year extension with Marc Staal

New York Rangers v Florida Panthers
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The New York Rangers have some key free agent decisions to make after this season, but the New York Post’s Larry Brooks reports that they’re already making progress toward signing Marc Staal to a contract extension.

To be more specific, Brooks passes along word that it would be a six-year deal worth somewhere between $5.6 million per season ($33.6 million overall) or as much as $5.9 million ($35.4 million).

A well-placed source said there had been “a productive meeting” here on Wednesday between assistant general manager Jeff Gorton and Staal’s representative, Paul Krepelka.

Such figures show a little bit of progress from what was reported in September, as it was believed the Rangers were offering Dan Girardi money ($33 million) while Staal, 28, was asking for a seven-year deal worth at least $42 million overall.

(ESPN’s Craig Custance backs up Brooks’ report that a six-year extension seems to be in the works.)

Girardi currently carries the Rangers’ highest cap hit among defensemen at $5.5 million, while rising star Ryan McDonagh’s mark is $4.7 million. Even in Staal’s low-end range according to that report, he’d be the third-highest paid Rangers player (cap hit-wise) in 2015-16 behind Henrik Lundqvist ($8.5 million) and Rick Nash ($7.8 million).

ESPN’s Katie Strang indicates that Staal would receive a full no-movement clause, while her colleague Pierre LeBrun gives a few more details:

Staal ranks third on the Rangers in ice time per game with 22:03 behind Girardi (23:26) and McDonagh (22:58). His possession numbers have sagged a bit since a strong turnaround in 2013-14, yet Brooks notes that the Rangers have been especially happy with Staal’s defensive work lately. He has seven points in 41 games this season.

Staal is far from the only relevant pending free agent on the team, as Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello rank as the Rangers’ most prominent UFAs while Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin are the leading RFAs on the squad.

PHT Morning Skate: Patrick Sharp helps blind fan reach a hockey goal

sharpwithfan
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PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

At least one commenter deems the Morning Skate “the morning cry.” Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp’s outstanding gesture toward blind 16-year-old fan Christina will probably not leave many dry eyes this morning:

For more on why people are using the Twitter hashtag #WhatsYourGoal, read this. (H/T to Puck Daddy)

The Vancouver Canucks will hold Pat Quinn night on March 17. (Canucks)

The All-Snub Team for the 2015 NHL All-Star Game, at least according to one hockey writer. (The Hockey News)

Editor’s Note: Pro Hockey Talk’s partner FanDuel is hosting an $18,000 Fantasy Hockey league for Friday night’s NHL games. It’s just $2 to join and first prize is $2,000. Starts Friday at 7pm ET. Here’s the FanDuel link.

The story of the 5-on-0 breakaway. (Greatest Hockey Legends)

As TSN’s BarDown passes along, it looks like Donald Brashear is … well, being Donald Brashear.

Spezza on facing Sens: ‘I’m a Dallas Star now’

Arizona Coyotes v Dallas Stars

As far as facing his longtime team the Ottawa Senators goes, it sounds like Dallas Stars forward Jason Spezza is pretty pleased with how the schedule panned out.

For one thing, he noted to NHL.com that these games are coming in January when he’s more acquainted with his teammates, rather than October or November. It probably helps to host his former teammates tonight before making what will probably be a far more emotionally trying visit to Ottawa on Jan. 29.

“It’s nice that it’s January. I’m a Dallas Star now,” Spezza said. “I feel like these guys are my teammates. You get tight, you get on the road, you become part of the team. If it was November, it would probably be a little different, you’re still kind of finding your way around. I think I was fortunate the game’s not being playing until January. It’s more I was excited to see the guys coming into town. There’s some guys I played with for a long time over there, so it was nice to catch up just to see where they’re at.”

Spezza doesn’t believe that he “shocked anyone that was close” to him in the locker room and beyond by wanting out of Ottawa.

The 31-year-old played for Ottawa from the 2002-03 season until 2013-14, enjoying two 90+ point seasons, becoming their captain and being an integral part of deep playoff runs (including a trip to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final). That success must have felt distant as Spezza asked out, and likely feels that way to Senators fans today.

Now Spezza hopes to help the Stars fight their way back into the playoff mix after a bumpy beginning to the 2014-15 season. As you can see below, it’s been a learning process for the veteran after all those years in Ottawa.

Related: Stars injuries could make Spezza more of a focal point tonight.